The liberal ‘problem’

By Moez Mobeen

Pakistan’s intelligentsia are worried about the direction in which the country is headed, and they should be, given that they form the intellectual elite who are supposed to be the custodians of the thoughts and emotions which dictate how this society should be managed and governed.

However, it is the reason why they are worried which is disappointing and which brings in to question their ability as thinkers and whether they are actually connected to the masses. The dilemma of the intelligentsia today is the growth of extremism and society’s march towards the right; to be more precise the increasing belief and conviction among the masses that Islam should form the basis of the political organisation of society.

For them the right is winning, the left losing. But what is disappointing on the part of liberals (who form the core of the intelligentsia in Pakistan) is the absence of a sincere attempt to understand the “extremist” viewpoint, a willingness to engage in dialogue, the courage to subject their own ideas to scrutiny and the imagination to accept the possibility of their solution being wrong.

The liberals have convinced themselves that it’s the other side that is not sincere in dialogue, likes to kill ideological rivals, and won’t give up its ideas. They believe this is the natural attitude of a faith-based ideology which pushes and mobilises people with the force of emotions. Is there a better example than the Taliban?

However, by choosing the Taliban, a fringe element from amongst the right wing, the liberals have chosen the easiest ideological enemy. In fact, this choice seems quite deliberate. The liberal mantra is: This is what the Taliban believe, and if you don’t want the Taliban’s version of society, you should switch over to the liberal side – This is equivalent to adopting a propagandist approach rather than engaging in a dialogue.

So at the intellectual level there really isn’t any debate all. Because what the liberals want to do is to prove themselves right and their strategy for showing the strength of their ideas is to package it as an alternative to the Taliban’s violent extremism. Hence, the liberal strategy for ideological debate hinges on the weakness of the opponent’s ideas, not the strength of their own. This is the classic “bogey man” approach.

Moreover, this approach has alienated liberals from the masses at large to the extent that they have become frustrated and angry at the extent of radicalisation being witnessed in society. But the liberals need to understand that the Taliban are not the intellectual elite of the right wing. Even the right wing would gladly concede that. By insisting on making the thought of the Taliban the defining debate on Pakistan’s outlook, the liberals are running away from the debate. In fact, we can perhaps, with some degree of accuracy, now suggest that the liberals have reached a stage of intellectual stagnation where they have trapped themselves in a static intellectual framework; everything is Zia’s fault.

The Muslim world has been transformed. The reformist Islamic politics of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, the idea of Islamising the secular state is dead, at least clinically. The Zia era embodied this current of Islamic thought, which focused on working within the ambit of democracy and gradually Islamising the state by working through the secular constitutional framework.

Politics in the Muslim World, Pakistan included, is changing. The idea that the present system is inherently incapable of reform or resurrection has taken deep roots within society. This has consequently led to a debate about the revival of the caliphate, a governance model radically different from and in direct contradiction with the present system implemented in Pakistan.

Zia is history, even for the rightwing. So what is the post-Zia response of the liberals? How do they respond to the changing dynamics in the Muslim World? Whom do they take on in the battle of ideas? The caliphate or the Taliban?

Debating the caliphate as a governance model is by far the greater intellectual challenge for a number of reasons. Firstly, because the Islamic caliphate enjoyed stupendous success as a governance model for many centuries in the Muslim world. Perhaps the strongest argument against it is that it doesn’t exist and with the idea of Westphalian sovereignty having taken root across the globe, it is unfathomable, for some, to imagine the resurrection of a pan-Islamic state.

Again, this argument tells nothing about the strength of the ideas, it merely talks about practicality. While talking about governance models, the liberals would have to put their own ideas on the table as well. So are they ready to debate democracy, pluralism, capitalism, freedom, the abolition of the separation of state and religion?

Finally the liberals are the forces of the status quo. Since the abolishment of the caliphate, the Muslim world has been ruled by ideas, systems and constitutions inherited from the colonialists with the liberals forming the ruling elite. In Pakistan since its independence from the British Raj, governance models based on liberal thought were implemented consistently.

True that dictatorship and democracy alternated but the thought which forms the cornerstone of both systems is the same. The law which formed the basis of court rulings was the same – the economic models the exact replicas, the foreign policy consistent (and subservient to the US). It is this failure of liberal thought, to address the problems faced by society which has catalysed our march towards radicalisation.

Will the liberals then engage in a sincere debate? Or will they opt for David Cameron’s “Muscular Liberalism”?

The News International


~ by shemrez on May 6, 2011.

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